South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: The great power struggle over adoption

The government says its planned amendment to the Children's Act will simplify the complicated and lengthy adoption process in South Africa. But the part of the process it is trying to fix is not broken, and there is no evidence that this amendment will fix those parts of the process that are. No one disagrees that more social workers are needed for adoptions, but by flooding the market with its own adoption social workers, the government could wrest the management of adoptions away from current practitioners and end up holding all the cards. By ROBYN WOLFSON.

Since the advent of the Children’s Act in 2005, adopting a child in South Africa has become a bit like a Mission impossible adventure set in the Big Brother house: it is the ultimate ‘against the odds’ undertaking but also characterised by invasive scrutiny, and weeks and months that pass where absolutely nothing happens. Thanks to the perseverance of adoptive parents — which could put even Tom Cruise to shame — these quests mostly have a happy ending. But the excessively challenging, mind-numbingly bureaucratic, and often adversarial adoption process is the chief basis for the halving of adoption figures in the last 10 years from 2,840 in 2004 to 1,448 in 2014. This is a dismal figure in a country with approximately 3.5-million orphans, many in need of adoption. So why was a recent headline in the press ‘Adoptions to be cheaper, easier’ received with such little fanfare and even dismay by the adoption community? The answer seems to lie in a small but significant change to the law — one imbued with potential risk — the rather subversive government-led messaging around this change in policy, and the inexorable sense that the new approach is designed to fix the only part of the adoption process that isn’t broken (well, not yet). Ultimately, the perplexing thought remains: What if adoption is actually worse off on the other side of these changes? Time, and what the department does next, will tell.

Across the globe, processing adoptions is a specialised practice. And no wonder; governed by national and international law, it is a complex process of legally and permanently changing a child’s identity. Mistakes made in screening potential adoptive parents could result in children being trafficked, neglected or abused, and errors in declaring a child adoptable could result in irrevocable harm to the child and families alike. Given this need to protect the best interests of the child, it is no wonder that South Africa’s Children’s Act defines very stringent criteria for working in this field, including accreditation and professional registration for social workers. But, what at first glance looks like a minor amendment to the Children’s Act might change all of that. If promulgated, this proposed change will expand the definition of an adoption social worker beyond the current experienced, accredited association of practitioners, to include every social worker employed by the Department of Social Development, be they permanent, part time or even contractual.

The stated goal of the amendment is to redress an apparent oversight in the original Act: the government restricted adoption practices to social workers in private practice and those employed by Child Protection Organisations, thus preventing its own social workers from processing adoptions. The omission has always been puzzling so extending the definition to include department social workers makes sense; it has even been applauded as a way to increase the scarce number of experts in the field. Where things get murky is the lack of qualifiers included in this new part of the definition. While other adoption social workers need to be accredited and in some cases registered, no such requirements have been specified for the department’s employees. In a perfect world, the department will of course train, monitor and control its social workers but if its plan is to regulate them, why not simply specify this in the Act? Without those legal parameters, the risks of potentially inexperienced and unskilled social workers conducting adoptions is real, and would certainly outweigh the benefits of making adoptions available to more people.

This was always going to raise concerns but then government went a step further by publicising the amendment as a way of solving a list of ‘problems’ it has identified with current adoption practices. These include the cost of adoptions, the time taken to process them and ease of access. The article ‘Adoptions to be easier, cheaper’, based on the department’s media briefing about the amendment, stated that “Adoption services are currently provided by accredited private social workers, who … charge exorbitant fees” and that “agencies charge no less than R100,000 to manage the adoption process of a single child”. In addition, “through the amendment, the department is hoping to reduce the current period of between six to 12 months it takes for adoptions to be finalised”. These arguments sound plausible but are the claims of money making, elitism and delay tactics verifiable and if so, will the amendment help?

The allegation that adoption is a money-making scheme is not a new one — the government has been arguing for ages that agencies and private social workers are profiting unduly from the practice. Like most seditious chatter, it pops up all over the place, but seldom as blatantly and breathtakingly as the “exorbitant” fees amounting to “no less than R100,000” accusation. The figure was immediately challenged by the National Adoption Coalition, adoptive families and even sources quoted in the article, but to date, the statement has neither been defended nor retracted. One can only speculate about why this conjecture was included, but the effect is to make adoption seem inaccessible to most of our population, and give credence to assertions of irresponsible practices by the current crop of social workers. What makes it so troubling is that it is both destructive, and exceptionally inaccurate.

In its written response, the National Adoption Coalition questioned how outrageous amounts were being charged given that the government regulates adoption fees and all fees must be formally declared to the department. It estimates that fees are more typically between R5,000 and R20,000 for a process that includes screening, pre- and post-adoption counselling, matching a child to a family, preparing the child for adoption, compiling and submitting legal reports to the court and liaising with the Departments of Social Development and Home Affairs on the family’s behalf. Child Protection Organisations confirmed that the costs are typically between R2,000 and R20,000 but also stated that they use a sliding scale based on the family’s income so poorer families are charged the minimum or nothing at all.

Adoptive parents agree that the government has the figure wrong. An informal survey of 30 families who have adopted in the last five years indicated that the majority (ours included) paid less than R15,000. Overall, the fees ranged from free to about R40,000. Parents who paid higher fees explained that not all agencies and social workers are subsidised by the state and that their fees were for an all-in service (including psychological and medical assessments), as well as counselling and care for their child’s birth mother (the Act specifies that these costs can be passed on to adoptive parents). Even in these cases, there seems little scope for profit.

The conclusion is staggering. The figure of R100,000 is an apparent fiction, and if it isn’t and anyone is benefiting financially from adoption, it is doing so with the government’s tacit consent. What the numbers actually suggest is that if adoption is a money-making racket, as the government alleges, it isn’t a particularly good one. Perhaps most importantly, thanks to government subsidies and the willingness of many Child Protection Organisations to work pro-bono, free adoptions are already available to those in most need.

Herein lies the problem. While extra social workers will, in theory, allow for more adoptions, asserting that the poor cannot adopt without this amendment is disingenuous. The government could achieve the same effect by increasing and extending subsidies to existing child protection organisations. This would allow them to employ more staff and perform more adoptions across broader geographical areas, at even cheaper rates, without the risk of untrained and unproven social workers attempting to do a job currently being done well.

But, if it is being done well, what of the government’s argument that its own social workers will shorten the adoption process to less than it current duration (six to 12 months)? This is perplexing for a number of reasons. Firstly, the government seems to be benchmarking against an invalid timeframe. I have yet to meet anyone whose adoption has been completed in less than a year. Our story attests: both our social worker and our child’s were excellent. They prepared our case files accurately and did not attract a single query from the courts, the registrar of adoptions or Home Affairs. Even so, my daughter’s adoption took almost four years from start to finish.

Does that prove the government’s point? Well no, because in most cases (like ours) it would be untruthful to maintain that social workers slowed down the process. Instead, the biggest delays came from the government itself, and the courts. Recent sticking points include the appallingly long time it takes to get a form 30 (a confirmation that the adoptive parent is not listed on the National Child Protection Register). Although the Department of Social Development undertakes to produce these in 21 days, up to a year’s wait is typical. The turnaround times for adoption orders to be granted can also be immense, depending on the court in question and how quickly the provincial social development department produces its “letter of recommendation” re the adoption (this part of our process took 11 months). The registration of adoptions, again the Department of Social Development’s domain, seldom takes place in the promised three months (ours took seven), and then there is the apparent inability of Home Affairs to process name changes and create unabridged birth certificates in less than 12 months (despite service level agreements of 16, and six to eight weeks respectively, ours took a year). Add to that the need for black babies to languish in care for an extra month while they wait (usually in vain) for same race parents, and the process is interminable. One researcher referred to it as the “constructive prevention of adoption”. Is the Department of Social Develpment actually suggesting that using its own social workers will minimise any of this?

On the contrary, screening, and the preparation of children for adoption is the one part of the process that is currently working, and this may change if social workers performing the task are inexperienced. Moreover, since every other part of the process is governed by how well these tasks are completed, any mistakes made will mean additional waiting time and potential heartache for the untold numbers of children in need of adoption.

So, if social workers aren’t unduly benefitting from adoptions, the part of the process that the department is trying to fix is not broken, and there is no evidence that this amendment will fix those parts of the process that are, what is this all about? No one disagrees that more social workers are needed for adoptions, and department employees could be a good solution — provided, of course, that the right checks and balances are built into the law. In the end though, the reporting of this amendment and ‘chatter’ prior to its release, point less to the government providing free adoptions to all, and more to control. By flooding the market with its own adoption social workers, the government can (if it wants) wrest the management of adoptions away from current practitioners.

If this amendment is passed as is, the department will hold all of the cards. It will have the power to grant, remove or delay accreditation — already a tactic being employed — and a steady stream of replacement social workers with no need for accreditation themselves. It would amount to command of the entire adoption process. Even the government has stopped implying that this is in “the best interests of our children”. And if not, whose interests is it in? The answer is disturbingly obvious — it does not bode well for the future of adoptions in this country. DM

Photo: South African children pick up litter off a beach for Mandela Day in Cape Town, South Africa, 18 June 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

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